Guard shortage creating unsafe conditions at Colorados Florence Correctional Complex, union says

Guards at the Colorado federal prison complex that houses the country’s most notorious criminals are raising alarms about a staff shortage that they say is making the complex more dangerous for workers and the men incarcerated there.

Nearly a third of the 476 correctional officer positions at the Florence Correctional Complex near Cañon City are unfilled, according to the officers’ union, the American Federation of Government Employees Local 1169.

The number of unfilled positions at the complex — which houses up to 2,369 inmates in four prisons — is likely to jump from 136 to more than 155 after Jan. 1 due to retirements and resignations, union president John Butkovich said.

The lack of correctional officers means teachers, cooks and maintenance workers are filling in on guard duty and the U.S. Bureau of Prisons is bringing in officers from other facilities across the country for weeks-long stints to fill gaps, Butkovich said.

The correctional officers have dealt with short staffing for years due to low pay and a long, bureaucratic hiring process, the union leader said. But the current situation is the worst he’s seen in his 12 years working at the facility, where two inmates were killed in homicides in the last three months.

“We can’t sustain a normal workforce,” Butkovich said. “You have the most secure prison system in the country and it is one of the least staffed.”

The Florence Correctional Complex encompasses four facilities: a minimum-security facility, a medium-security correctional institute, a high-security penitentiary and the nation’s only Supermax facility. The Supermax prison houses criminals like Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 9/11 co-conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui and Mexican cartel leader Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman Loera.

The Bureau of Prisons declined requests for interviews for this story and refused to provide specific data regarding the number of open correctional officer positions at the Florence complex. The bureau also declined to provide information about mandatory minimum staffing levels at the facility. In response to emailed questions, spokesman Ben O’Cone said the bureau is offering recruitment and retention bonuses in an effort to keep staffing at needed levels.

The correctional officers’ union gained the support of Colorado Sens. John Hickenlooper and Michael Bennet, who jointly penned a letter to the Bureau of Prisons asking for increased retention pay at the facility and local control over hiring.

“We have heard that the low pay, forced overtime and dangerous working conditions have led to low morale, attrition of current workers and an inability to recruit an adequate number of qualified staff to run the facility safely,” the senators wrote in their Dec. 8 letter. “We request your help in order to address these issues and ensure a safe environment for Bureau of Prisons staff and the prison inmates.”

Prisons have long struggled to keep staff because of low pay and the nature of the work, but the correctional officers at the Florence complex aren’t the only ones to sound the alarm about understaffing in recent months. Guards in several states have staged protests outside their facilities to draw attention to the issues, including the Florence prison workers.

Only 13,762 of the 20,446 full-time federal correctional officer positions across the country were filled in May, according to the Associated Press. The continued staffing shortages and several high-profile cases of officer misconduct led the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee in November to call for the firing of the prison bureau’s director.

The Bureau of Prisons spent millions on 148,000 hours of overtime at the Florence complex in fiscal year 2021 and 146,000 hours the previous fiscal year, O’Cone said in an email.

The staffing problem began four years ago when the Bureau of Prisons implemented a hiring freeze, Butkovich said, and the complex has never recovered. Starting pay for a correctional officer is $43,000, which is not enough to support a family in an expensive state like Colorado and is thousands less than the $50,892 starting pay for Colorado Department of Corrections officers, he said. The federal prisons’ hiring process also takes months, during which candidates too often find other jobs, Butkovich said.

As the shortage continues, guards are being forced to work more and more mandatory overtime, which causes more people to leave. Many correctional officers are forced to work multiple 8-hour overtime shifts a week.

“You see fatigue with every staff member there,” he said. “How long can a person work 12-to-15 hours a day five days a week?”

Weary guards mean more room for mistakes, he said, which can create a security risk for the prison staff and the people incarcerated there, Butkovich said. Although the non-correctional officer staff members being pulled into work guard shifts have been trained, they are not as familiar with the day-to-day routine or the men incarcerated in the prison, he said.

Two men imprisoned in the complex have been killed in homicides in the last three months. Jamarr Thompson, 33, died Dec. 6 after a fight between inmates in the high-security facility. Thirty-year-old Joe Clinton, Jr., died Oct. 7 after a fight in the same facility.

In 2021, the Bureau of Prisons also recorded eight serious assaults on inmates at the Florence complex and one serious assault on staff.

Butkovich said it’s hard to know whether the staffing shortage directly caused the violent incidents but said it was unusual to see so much violence in the facility.

“All of our concerns hit deaf ears,” he said of speaking with the complex’s managers.

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